Business

NIGERIA: My Father’s Regimented Life Taught Me to be Disciplined

 Norbert Chukwumah, the managing director and chief executive of Nigeria Machine Tools Company Limited, is a man who should always thank his parents. They taught him different but helpful things about life. The NMT helmsman, a lawyer, is one person who does not believe in having role models. His reason: all icons have flaws and all heroes have their negative sides. However, he picks a female traffic warden on Lagos Island as one of the people he admires because of her devotion to duty. He speaks to Crusoe Osagie on his life, career, family and a sad episode in his life that he will never forget

From Parents, A Lot to Learn…
Norbert Chukwuma, the managing director and chief executive of the Nigerian Machine Tools Company, owes a lot to his parents. From his mother, he learnt industry and from the father, he learnt to be contented and live a disciplined life. From the two of them, he learnt different things that have been useful to him as he navigates life. Norbert was a town boy, not a village boy. He grew up in a family of five boys and two girls. That was on Benin-City. He was later to travel to Sokoto to complete his secondary education. But the person who gave him the meaning of hardwork and determination was his mother. She taught him how to get out of his comfort zone, roll up his sleeves and battle it on life’s field of struggle.
“My mother was a primary school teacher and along the line, she realised that her income wasn’t adequate to support the kind of education and upbringing she wanted for her children. She dropped the teaching profession and tried her hands on practically everything such as, trading, importation and selling of textiles and other products just to be able to make sufficient income. It was not enough for the children to live a luxurious life, but was enough to ensure that we did not lack any of the basic necessities of life. But apart from trying to eke out a living, she was motivated to do something for her community and even devoted a bit of her time to politics and community leadership. From her I learnt the gift of hard work and application of one’s self to achieve set objectives.”
On his father, Norbert says as a career civil servant, his life was so regimented that you could predict what he was doing in the twenty-four hours that make a day. Such was his routine that it was religiously followed.

“My father on the other hand, was a career civil servant retiring as a Director in then Bendel State Civil Service. He never engaged in business or any other remunerative venture. He focused on his job and I must say he was one of the most dedicated people to his work and I learnt from him contentment. He was content with what he had and never sought more. Five o’clock every evening, irrespective of what the problem or issues were, you would find him at the lawn tennis club. It was a ritual. His life was regimented; he would come back from work, had one hour siesta, then proceeded to the tennis court religiously. He passed away when I was 30 and in those 30 years, I never heard him raise his voice in anger even once. He never bore any grudge or even showed malice to anybody. So, you can see that they are two different people and both influenced my life in different ways.”
Life for this Edo man started where he was sired, Benin-City. From Emotan Primary School, he proceeded to Edo College, Benin-City, and from then, the trajectory of his educational pursuit took an inexorable shape.
“From Edo College Benin City, I moved on to Federal Government College Sokoto.  I attended the Federal School of Arts and Science, Sokoto for my A levels and proceeded to the University of Jos, where I obtained a law degree and then to the Nigerian Law School in Lagos where I was called to the Nigerian Bar in 1989. I did my National Youth Service with the Police Headquarters in Kaduna as a legal officer. I have also obtained a certificate of completion of the advanced management programme at Harvard Business School, which is Harvard’s highest executive programme. As you can see I have moved around a lot.”

A Career Path well Defined…
Norbert’s first job was one he still remembers till today. It was at a company called Corporate Lynx Management Services Limited in Kaduna and that was after his youth service in the northern city. From there, he moved to Christaben Group Limited, a big indigenous oil service company. He was legal officer and executive assistant to the chief executive officer.
“Christaben at that time was arguably the largest indigenous oil service company in Nigeria, engaged predominantly in the downstream sector of the Nigerian oil and gas industry. I spent five years at the company. Those were my formative years in paid employment and business. There was no particular point where I can say this prepared me for my current role. I guess I just followed what you can consider to be a normal progression path by a lot of other Nigerians taking the first best-considered opportunity that came my way.”
He believes what he has achieved today was based on the fact that it came like it had come for so many other Nigerians of his age. As some people might claim about attributing their success to certain steps they took, Norbert does not toe that line.
“I cannot say I planned it, but due to my course of study I was prepared for any situation I found myself. I chose to study Law firstly because I liked the intricacies of applying yourself to different positions and issues based on the facts of each situation and secondly, as an art student in those days the first choice for our JAMB forms was usually law and if that does not work out, you try some other thing. Outside some corporate legal services, which I perform from time to time, my stint in Christaben Group effectively took me away from mainstream legal work and set me on the path that brought me to where I am today.”

Running Nigerian Machine Tools…
And today, he is the managing director and chief executive of Nigerian Machine Tools Limited. While he admits that it has been challenging running the company, he could not thank his team enough who has made it less difficult that it could have been.
“We work as a team and we manage to carry on our activities efficiently in both major locations of operations, Lagos and Oshogbo primarily because I try not to micro-manage the entity and we devolve a lot of responsibilities to the senior management of the company. I have a General Manager and Chief Operating Officer who runs the day to day affairs of the company in Oshogbo; allowing me to concentrate on the larger picture of growth, performance enhancement and strategy for the company. NMT is predominantly an engineering firm necessitating the availability of very capable technical hands on board. To this end, we sourced our manpower both within and outside Nigeria. Our expatriate workers each have Nigerian understudies, thus achieving effective skill transfer. Our financial controller happens to be very thorough fellow who is adept at what he does. While devolving responsibilities we have also put in place processes that will enable checks and balances and to continually monitor and evaluate what goes on in the company both in terms of operational efficiency and the quality of the outputs.

That way, we can easily identify problem areas and quickly resolve them. So, it has been challenging but not too stressful as I have a great team working with me and a lot is being achieved.”
NMT itself was primarily a joint venture between the Nigerian government and the India government. It was privatised in 2007 by the federal government in furtherance of its privatisation programme to allow it to be run by private hands. According to Norbert, the company was also set up to pioneer the industrial growth of the country because, as he believes, for any country to be industrialised, there must be a support base that provides the necessary tools and equipment to be utilised in the process of industrialisation. He says this equipment includes such machines tools as lathes, drilling machines, cutting machines, milling and grinding machines. These machines form the bedrock of equipment necessary to reproduce themselves: hence they are often referred to as mother machines. Explaining further the relationship between the company and its parent company, Quinn McGrath, Norbert has this to say:
“When NMT was privatised, Quinn McGrath acquired 70 percent of the shares in the company; the federal government still retained 15 percent and the government of India, holds the other 15 percent of the shares. I must tell you that at the onset of the privatisation programme, we looked at everything that was open for privatisation and the one we settled on was NMT because we had a vision for Nigeria. We believed that Nigeria someday is going to become an industrial powerhouse on the continent and we want NMT to be part of that industrial growth from the incubation stage. The acquisition of NMT is an avenue for us to actualise our dreams for Nigeria through industrial development. It was difficult at the beginning because substantial funding was required not only for acquisition but also for rehabilitation and upgrade programmes. It has taken us from 2008 to 2013 to do a complete rehabilitation, upgrade and new plant installation to get the company to the point where we are fully operational and with a very forward-looking bright future for the company. The parent company acts primarily as the oversight company in its capacity as majority shareholder.”
On the clients the company works for, Chukwuma says they are multi-dimensional. He says it is a multi-disciplinary organisation that services practically all sectors of the Nigerian economy. The foundry, which is a core sector of its business, caters for all our casting needs as well as those of external customers. His words:

“In the foundry, we cast a lot of products in conformity with specific and general standards and exactly to client specification. We produce various items for the construction industry, government institutions and agencies, cement industry, quarries, the oil and gas industry etc. In relation to our machining capabilities, given our extensive range of machine tools and highly sophisticated Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) machines, we are able to do a lot of machine works for the oil and gas, construction, fabrication and other manufacturing. We also have installed in our factory, the first plant in Nigeria to produce stud bolts and nuts, and at the same time, being able to coat them to the exacting standards of the oil and gas industry. We also produce flanges for the oil and gas industry and municipal and general use. We have also installed a surface treatment facility to provide the required finishing for products from the foundry, machining or fabrication sections, the treatments include; PTFE coating, Zinc coating, flouropolymer coating etc. Our recently installed galvanising plant also provides corrosion protection for items produced for the oil and gas, construction and manufacturing industries and also for our own activities.

NMT also has a technical training institution that is capable of training about 40 to 60 students on different aspects of technical and vocational study at any one time. So, we use that facility to train our own staff and we also train engineers from other organisations to adequately equip them with the right skill for increased productivity at their places of work.”
He explains that the company was continuously rendering services to a wide variety of clients in different sectors of the Nigerian economy whose names he will not like to mention. “We are also trying to continuously improve on the quality of our products and services to continually exceed the standards set by our clients. This has informed the setting up of various divisions in the company and the openness of the company’s management to new ideas and innovation from our staff. We are currently undergoing inspection by two international bodies Bureau Veritas and SGS, globally renowned for testing, inspection, verification and certification, and we hope to attain ISO 9001: 2008 certification within the next three months. So you can see that we are working hard to make sure that our procedures and quality control personnel are in place to ensure that what we produce will meet the customers’ requirement all the time.”

Running the Home Front…
The job at Nigerian Machines Tools has not made Norbert a poor family man. He ensures that aspect does not suffer but beyond this, he has very high praises for his wife. To him, she is a loving and understanding wife who has been with him for the past sixteen years. Despite the fact that she is a Master’s degree holder, Norbert says she is in charge of the home front full time.
“I have been married for 16 years and I have a very loving and understanding wife, the mother of our two children. She also has a Master’s degree in environmental law and practice. Right now however, she is a full time manager of the home front. Taking care of the children and managing the home front full time, allows me the freedom to devote considerable time and energy towards achieving the goals and objectives that we have set for ourselves in NMT. Next year, our second daughter should be getting into the secondary school and that would avail my wife the chance to pursue personal ambitions and goals. Right now, she is the rock at home; she keeps that side very stable. I also try my best irrespective of the responsibilities and the constraints imposed by my workload to spend quality time with her and the kids as a family as often as possible.”

While many people would jump at the idea of a role model, not Chukwuma, because he believes all role models are flawed. All he does is identify with some good people and try to emulate the good things they do; either during their life time or if they are still alive.
I only pick the good I see in different people. Inspiration can come from anywhere; it can come from very humble people, from even your subordinates. Having said that, however, the great Nelson Mandela taught us forgiveness, the ability to look beyond what might have happened in the past; not forgetting it but learning from it and moving on irrespective of what happened for the common good. Then there is Ernest Shackleton, the polar explorer. From him, I understood the necessity for perseverance, endurance and belief in whatever you do. From him, also came what has been termed resilient leadership in adversity; always finding a way to lead and move forward in all circumstances. You can get bits of useful insights from different people from all around you. I will give you another example. You know that female traffic warden that controls traffic around the law school area in Lagos? I do not know her name, but she is getting older now; she does her work conscientiously, always with a smile on her face for as far back as I can remember. She is a role model and an example to all. So inspiration can come from anywhere as long as one is open-minded.”
Norbert says he does not like treachery or dishonesty and he is not very patient with people who refuse to apply themselves to the best of their capabilities. To him, everybody has inherent capabilities to do specific things.

“Not all of us have the same abilities but you would have achieved fulfillment if you assert yourself to the best of your capabilities. Outside that, I guess I probably dislike the same things that every other self-respecting individual dislikes.”
What are legacies to him? He says they are things one wants to be remembered for. While he, as a person, believes not everyone will be happy with his actions, he wants them to say he tried his best and was fair to all.
“I would want anybody to say of me that he was a man fair to all. I will like to leave a legacy where my children and associates would never have to feel any negativity towards being referred to as children or associates of mine because of my actions or inactions. I also would like to be seen as a man who was an inspiration and did his best to leave his immediate environment, company and community better than he found it; not perfect but not irredeemably flawed.”

Taking NMT Further…
“If you remember what I said earlier about Nigeria’s industrialisation, this has been something at the back of my mind and we want to make sure that we position NMT properly to take advantage of the country’s industrialisation process. NMT’s vision is to develop and nurture existing markets and we want NMT to develop the markets in such a way that it provides adequate financial returns to all stakeholders. By all stakeholders, I mean the owners of the company, the employees, the community and ultimately, as a good citizen, government through our taxes. NMT is being guided by the basic principle of providing the best quality products and services to our customers through a highly skilled and dedicated workforce.
As reassuring as his words are to those who work in the company, Norbert adds further that his initial fears about the company are over.
“Honestly, my fears have gone. I have no fear about where we are going in NMT because I believe we are taking a right path and I believe in Nigeria and the growth potentials of the country. I believe with the right push in the right areas, Nigeria has a bright future and NMT’s future is inextricably linked with the future of Nigeria. So really, I have no fears but I also know that there are problems; however, I have also learnt through my years of experience that these problems are not insurmountable. I am optimistic that the future is good.”

A Sad Episode…Indeed
Norbert will not always forget his childhood. While it was fun and graceful, there was an event that has remained a painful one to him in the last 12 years: the death of his brother.
“I am the fifth child. I have two after me but lost the one in 2002. He was a medical doctor and represents one of the most painful episodes of my life.”

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